New PhD to attract overseas students

April 12, 2001

Ten British universities are preparing to launch a broader PhD programme designed to answer growing competition for overseas graduates from the United States.

The "new route" PhD, backed by the Foreign Office and the British Council, will incorporate popular elements of the American PhD model, including formally assessed taught elements that aim to turn out "well-rounded and adaptable" postgraduates.

It will be offered from September in two or three subjects at each university in the "pathfinder" consortium, which comprises Birmingham, Brighton, Brunel, Cranfield, Lancaster, Loughborough, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield universities, and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

The move follows dissatisfaction with the traditional British PhD and the master plus PhD option from sponsors of overseas graduates seeking postgraduate programmes abroad.

A report on feedback from sponsors says many who have gained their doctorates in the United Kingdom now say they prefer the American model.

It says: "Graduates from today's British doctoral programmes are considered to be too specialist, except for research careers; and those who enter university teaching are criticised for being unable to teach outside their narrow specialism. In addition, the UK PhD is considered a lonely experience, socially and culturally isolating."

In contrast, the US version is considered attractive because it exposes students to a "stimulating variety of educational and social experiences" by developing generic as well as research skills, enhancing the student's subject knowledge and involving group work.

The new three or four-year British PhD will increase the range of choice for both overseas and home students, rather than simply replacing the traditional model.

It will include assessed taught units that may involve teaching skills, group work, technology transfer, enterprise skills, languages and research skills, followed by conventional or professional PhD project work.

Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone said: "We hope that these new courses will serve as a model to other universities to introduce similar PhD programmes in the future."

Meanwhile, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is considering making the training and accreditation programme for postgraduate supervisors, or Tapps, an optional nationwide scheme for their supervisors by the end of the year.

A two-year trial involved 18 supervisors at the Institute for Animal Health in Pirbright, near Woking. The programme will undergo a final review in June but is thought to have been a resounding success, and already another 70 students from the IAH and other institutions have begun the course. The John Innes Centre in Norwich and Manchester University has also expressed interest.

Peter Mertens, orbivirus group leader at the IAH and chair of the BBSRC's Tapps committee, said: "To enable each student to attain their full potential, it is clearly essential that they get the best possible training and supervision."

At present, there are no systematic training schemes for supervisors outside a handful of isolated and unconnected skills workshops. Tapps provides them with coordinated training in a range of areas such as the recruitment of PhD students, exam assessment and coaching skills.

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